Research into policies in both American and foreign schools has shown that requiring students to wear uniforms does not necessarily lead to improved academic performance. However, uniforms can lead to fewer distractions and improved levels of concentration among students.
Educational administrators are always on the lookout for policies and techniques to help their kids get ahead. Trying new things is a part of the learning process. That’s true whether you are in preschool or have been a principal for twenty years.
One of those things that most American public school administrators may not have tried yet is adopting a school uniform policy. But it’s an idea seeing a new surge in interest.
While school uniforms today are most commonly associated with private schools, there has been a push for a return to uniforms even in public schools.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, for the 2019-20 school year, just under 19 percent of public schools required a school uniform. That’s down from 2015-16, when more than 21 percent of schools had uniforms.
But educational leaders are also taught to adopt evidence-based practices. Implementing a uniform policy just because your district hadn’t tried it yet isn’t enough. Before doing the hard work of implementing a uniform policy and selling it to the board and the community, school administrators will want to answer the question: do school uniforms improve grades?
Where Do School Uniforms Come From?
School uniforms are a common sight in many foreign countries. The practice is thought to have started in religious schools in England in the early 1200s. Engrained in culture, uniforms are much more popular there than in the United States. A 2011 survey of students at Christ’s Hospital, a boarding school founded in London in 1552, resulted in 95 percent voting to keep their traditional uniforms.
It’s tough for American educational administrators to imagine anything like that kind of support. In the United States, uniforms are more prevalent at the primary and middle grades than in high schools. Only 12 percent of high schools required uniforms during 2019-20.
Perhaps in line with the same act of rebellion that separated the U.S. from England in the first place, school uniforms didn’t really make the leap across the Atlantic to the founding colonies. Apart from religious and parochial schools, few American schools adopted uniform policies.
That started to change in the late 1980s. Increasing discipline and gang violence problems in urban schools saw both voluntary and mandatory uniform programs instituted from Baltimore to LA. In 1996, the idea even rated a mention from President Bill Clinton in his State of the Union address.
But despite the boost, uniforms never became common. It’s possible to see the 2015 number from NCES as a sort of high water mark for school uniform requirements. The percentage that year was roughly double the number from the late 1990s.
Despite many court challenges, filed under First Amendment freedom of expression requirements, uniform policies have been found to be legal. But that’s a far different question than whether or not they are effective.
The Arguments for and Against School Uniforms Take on a Range of Educational Challenges
For starters, it’s important to understand that uniform adoption is not driven entirely by academic achievement. Proponents of uniforms list a number of benefits:
Increased Student Safety
Uniforms make it quick and easy to spot outsiders on school grounds, which can be a real advantage in an era where school shootings by non-students have skyrocketed. Uniforms also prevent common gang clothing identifiers, which is a problem in some districts.
Reducing Fashion Peer Presure
Uniforms take away choice and judgement in matters of personal appearance. That’s a negative for some students, but it’s a relief to others. Any kid who feels judged for their clothing choices or pressured to wear expensive designer clothes is let off the hook by mandatory uniforms.
Fewer Distractions in the Learning Environment
For both students and teachers, uniforms can reduce clothing-related distractions in school. Whether that’s making judgement calls over individual clothing choices that may infringe on the school’s dress policy, or causing trouble with controversial phrases on t-shirts, it takes attention away from actual lessons and instruction. Despite uniforms representing a stricter dress code, consistency means less time spent on dress code enforcement.
School uniforms can be mandatory or optional; most studies focus on mandatory uniform policies.
Add these factors up, and proponents claim that school uniforms can also:
The Theory of School Uniforms Gets Hung Out to Dry
But experienced administrators know that theory doesn’t always fit practice in education. For every point about the supposed benefits of school uniforms, there are counterarguments:
Although uniforms may make it easy to spot intruders on school grounds, they can also make targets of the students wearing them. They don’t actually impact gang membership or presence, but only mask it.
Requiring high-quality uniforms puts an undue burden on less affluent families. And while uniforms may reduce competitive dressing, rules around them create gender dysmorphia for students struggling with gender identity. They also conflict with religious groups that mandate certain dress styles.
Some evidence has shown that uniforms do indeed reduce distractions and can help improve student concentration levels. But studies have also linked uniform requirements with stifling creativity, which can hurt grades.
Studies of the actual adoption of uniforms in school environments in the United States offer a mixed perspective on outcomes. Specifically, most studies show that uniforms have no direct impact on academic performance. That’s true even when they have measurable psychological and sociological effects.
Why School Uniforms Don’t Improve Grades
If uniforms can lead to improvements in concentration and attendance, why doesn’t that translate to better grades? In fact, some studies have found the exact opposite! A 1998 longitudinal study of American 10th graders actually found negative correlations between uniform requirements and academic achievement.
But teachers know that there is far more that goes into getting good grades than just concentration.
Uniforms have always been about discipline and culture, not grades.
The reality is that academic performance is a complex outcome from many contributing factors. It’s tough to draw a direct line between good grades and any single variable with confidence. While improving good discipline and stability in the classroom sets conditions for better grades, it’s not enough. The entire culture of the school has something to say about academic performance.
Similarly, school administrators can’t expect any single policy change to definitively improve grades. It takes a big picture perspective of the factors in your school or district and a plan to address all of them.
How a Degree in Educational Leadership Gives You the Tools to Assess School Uniform Policies
Putting together that plan takes both knowledge and vision. The tried-and-true way to develop both of those qualities today comes through advanced degrees in educational leadership. In fact, it’s all but impossible to get a principal or superintendent job in any state today without them.
A Master of Education in Educational Administration, or even a more advanced program like a Doctor of Education in Educational Leadership prep you for those roles. They come with coursework that walks you through the sociological issues that uniforms address. And they teach you the assessment and analysis skills to decide what uniform impacts might look like in your school.
They also come with the opportunity to forge new ground in uniform studies. Graduate studies come with requirements for extensive research and original thinking. You’ll be able to dive into your own theories about uniforms and find ways to test and develop them.
Of course, uniforms and dress policy are just a small piece of the puzzle you’ll be putting together. It’s just one example of the ways you can tailor one of these leadership programs to your own interests. You have the flexibility to find your own path, but the rigor to make it a success.